Last week, I opened my Facebook page to an article which explained how the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), an anti-public education think tank nestled within UW Bothell, is making waves nationally.
I wasn’t surprised.
As a UW Bothell student in the Masters of Policy Studies program, who signed up for the only “Education Policy” elective offered in my program, I learned first-hand how CRPE views public education, and witnessed first-hand how they conduct their own classroom.
Robin Lake and Betheny Gross, the co-instructors of the CRPE course, presented the argument that business models were more equitable and efficient than traditional public schools, and that the only way to reform education was to dismantle it and replace it with charters that will constantly open and close according to their “results”. The goal was never “better schools overall”. The goal was the ability to close “bad” schools.
These instructors argued the education system is supposed to have mixed results, to compare outcomes (test scores), and shut down “ineffective” schools; they argue that it is good to create a continuous, responsive cycle for “improvement”. They argue that public institutions are too bureaucratic, too slow to change and adapt to the 21st century. Their goal is to privatize public education.
Robin and Bethany, the instructors of the CRPE course, blamed teachers, parents and students in the process of demonizing public education. They didn’t mention the factors of poverty or low school funding, nor did they mention budget cuts or how since Federal education policies from No Child Left Behind, and every version since then, drain resources from public education. According to Robin and Bethany, “money doesn’t make a difference and we need to stop throwing it at education”. When have we ever done this?
That quarter, we read from business models how shutting down and “starting from a clean slate” was the best way to turn around failing businesses. We did not read a single piece of educational literature that did not come directly out of CRPE. I was shocked.
I raised concerns over issues of equity and standardization. They dismissed my concerns as being unsupported, non- issues or able to be solved by Charter Reform. At the end of the quarter we were asked to present one of our final two projects. Most of my colleagues chose to regurgitate the arguments made in class readings (some to save their grade, others because it was the first Ed policy class they took and the only information they had to draw from). I took a moderate stance on a paper that briefly included issues within high stakes exams and the need for multiple measures of intelligence.
I would have been open to any form of critical feedback, both positive and negative. The only response I received; however, was “Nice try but it will never work on a national scale”. Then, I saw a week later how my grade was negatively impacted by my substantiated and researched views. I received the lowest possible grade accepted by my program. No feedback on my work except for “Nice try…”. I was stunned. I did the work. Education Policy was my specialization.
I bring up this anecdote because it highlights a significant learning opportunity in my graduate education. I care much less about grades, than I do feedback. And that was the problem.
I realized the way these instructors defined democratic participation (both in educational reforms and the way they conducted their classroom), was by offering choices created by “experts”; rather than increasing the participation of stakeholders. Their evaluation methods also reflected the disproportionate value they placed on “absorbed information”, not ability to think critically, find information, interpret information and disseminate it to my colleagues within the framework of the course. They didn’t engage with competing perspectives and grade a body of work. They rated students according to their worldview.
I question why a research based program,UW Bothell, is allowing lecturers from a think tank intent on dismantling public education, to teach future educators and policy makers.
There was limited oversight or accountability for how they chose to deliver information. They had full control over grading practices, were not hired on as professors, assistant professors or lectures. They were given a title of “instructor” and allowed to teach without observation of a faculty member. We were given office hours for the Director of the MAPS program and a survey at the end of the quarter. There was no other oversight to prevent them fromretaliating against students. I’ve taken classes by people in the pro- charter camp before. But they conducted themselves as professionals capable of entertaining competing perspectives, provided critical feedback and graded based on quality of work and participation.
All of the students from that class are working in our education now. We are making decisions that impact the lives of students and families across the state and nation. Some of us had exposure to enough competing perspectives to challenge the idea that public dollars should be taken away from schools and given to a private marketplace. Some didn’t. So as I read about how they are shaping the educational landscape nationally, I really understand how their views as course instructors have shaped the perspectives, and educational outcomes of professionals working in our own backyard.
Taking the course taught by CRPE’s researchers was one of the most eye opening learning opportunities I have ever had. Comparing their research methods, ideologies and classroom culture to the courses I took to earn my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I was struck by their narrow views and how they wouldn’t entertain any views outside of their own.
I don’t doubt that these two upper middle class white women care a great deal about children like theirs. I do doubt CRPE’s ability to question their unwavering faith in Neo-Liberal Market reform.
How material is taught is just as important as the curriculum itself. Does the instructor value debate as a tool of learning? Or is repetition of subject material the leading indicator of learning?
I recall watching “Waiting for Superman” in previous classes. This video is a popular marketing tool for Charter Reformers. One of the central arguments of the video, is that students are currently taught as passive recipients of knowledge. Where the teacher is the ultimate authority and attempts to “dump” knowledge; rather that teaching students to engage with material.
If the fundamental argument of Charter reformers is that you can break up the “bureaucracy” and “monopoly” of public ed so that teachers are able to engage with students; why are their reformers teaching in the very authoritarian style they critique?
It’s not just the tech industries, the testing and text book industries and the data crunchers and education reform managers and cheerleaders and edu-investors making billions of dollars. The U.S. student debt market is growing whereby student debt is packaged and sold to investors, like the mortgage backed securities that landed us into the 2009 financial crisis were. These investments are known as SLABS – Student Loan Asset Backed Securities. Sallie Mae is the biggest private provider of student loans AND they also sell SLABS, a $200 billion market.
Since 1983, the United States has supposedly been a Nation at Risk when a report (A Nation at Risk) was written comparing our students’ performance on international tests to the performance of students in other countries. In this report we were warned that we would fall behind economically if we couldn’t better prepare young people for the future. The report was promoted by President Reagan.
To remedy or otherwise “catch up” to the test scores of children in other countries and to make sure our economy remained strong, education reforms were enacted. Under President Bush we hadNo Child Left Behind and under President Obama we hadRace to the Top, and now under President Trump, education reforms are in place, and we see cuts of billions of federal dollars to public education and hundreds of millions of dollars given toprivate schools, including charter schools.
Education reforms include adherence to rigid standards, like Common Core (which one teacher characterized as having “misplaced rigor”), high stakes testing, judging schools by test scores, the push to online instruction and charter schools, and and the forever repeating mantra of making sure students graduate from high school “College and Career Ready” meaning that students are able to enter college without having to take remedial classes in math and/or English. However, despite the decades long clarion call to make sure our students graduate from high school ready for college level work, 40-50% of college students nationwide still have to take at least one remedial course today.
Whether or not we think about it consciously, parents, teachers and society in general expect children in school to learn basic bodies of knowledge like math, history, literature, sciences, the arts and writing. We have also always expected, consciously or not, that during their K-12 (Kindergarten to 12th grade) education, children get a sense of their own strengths and interests and then come to find a general direction in life.
The people behind education reform, largely corporate and wall street interests, have taken advantage of these expectations as well as fears we share, like wanting children to go to college, or fearing we won’t be a strong country if U.S. students can’t do better on international tests. They create products and processes of learning that they then sell back to us, and they have made billions of dollars for themselves in the process. However, despite education reforms, most young people in the U.S. are suffering more now than they had in 1983 and our test scores have not dramatically improved. I think that the “crisis of falling behind the rest of the world” was deliberately created in 1983 to create a system so that a segment of society, the investor class, could make billions of dollars. Why would I say that?
For one, why if we are a nation at risk of falling behind the rest of the world economically because of our education system, why have our states and federal government given high earning individuals and corporations tax breaks, which drains our coffers of money to pay for education? For example, in Washington State, we have among the lowest funded and most crowded schools and the most regressive tax structure in the nation (the poor and middle class paying a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the rich). We have had well-funded schools until the 1990’s. What happened? Corporate tax breaks. They have risen from 18 billion dollars in 1996 to over 36 billion dollars today.
Moreover, in 1989 Washington state paid 89% of students’ college tuition. However, in 2017 they cover only 34% of a students’ tuition. This has resulted in today roughly 44 million Americans holdingabout$1.4 trillion in student loan debt with the average debt being $37,000. Here’s a breakdown of the average student loan debt by state. If our states and federal government really cared about kids‘ education, why the decrease in school fundingwhen numerous studies have shown that low class size contributes greatly to student success?
However, surprisingly (or not), many of the people behind ed-reform are also found on Wall Street and in fortune 500 companies clamoring for change in our education system. Take a look at this invitation to a venture capital conference entitled
“Private Equity Investing in For-Profit Education… How Breakdowns in Traditional Models & Applications of New Technologies Are Driving Change”
This conference is about how to invest in education products for public schools. The entrance fee to the conference? $1,500.
It’s not just the tech industries, the testing and text book industries and the data crunchers and education reform managers and cheerleadersand edu-investors making billions of dollars. TheU.S. student debt market is growing. And student debt is packaged and sold to investors, like the mortgage backed securities that landed us into the 2009 financial crisis were. These investments are known as SLABS – Student Loan Asset Backed Securities. Sallie Mae is the biggest private provider of student loans AND they also sell SLABS, a $200 billion market.
Sallie Mae and Wall Street want kids to go to college. More kids in debt means more money for them. And students can’t easily release their debt. Instead, their wages are garnished, their tax refunds are garnished, their social security is garnished and even their co-signer’s money is garnished. The same class of people who benefit from tax breaks are also making money off of student debt. The balance of who benefits from education reform is not tilted towards students.
Sallie Mae, again the largest private provider of student loans, started an ed-reform group in 2001 called the Lumina Foundation: “Our goal is to prepare people for informed citizenship and for success in a global economy.” The Lumina Foundation’s goal is for 60% of Americans to earn a college degree or workplace credential by 2025. Incidentally, Lumina’s board chair is John Lintzenich, who was a former CEO of Sallie Mae. Both Lumina and Sallie Mae are heavy promotersof ed-reform and have made bedfellows with ALEC, which is a group of the investor class and state legislators who jointly write our laws. Here are their tiesto ALEC.
Also, while ed reformers assure us that they care about the success of children and young people, they neglect to do anything about the economy which our young people are launched into. Why get young adults into massive student loan debt and then have a system whereby the chance of landing a living wage full-time job is only 50%?
Education reformers and our state legislators also fail to tell us that the majority of jobs with the most job growth projected to 2024 don’t require a college education. And if you think it’s a sure pathway to success for kids to major in STEM, check out this 2014 report from the U.S. Census Bureau entitled Census Bureau Reports Majority of STEM College Graduates Do Not Work in STEM Occupations.
Indeed, I think our Legislators and leaders in Congress are wasting their time and our time pushing education reform when we have more pressing issues to deal with – Living wage jobs and well-funded schools. For example, just prior to the last recession in 2008, there were 26 million Americans on food stamps, and now we have 44 million.
In closing, education reform is a con job whereby the investor class and their servile politicians are seeking to control our perceptions of education and the economy through feel good language and empty promises. Yet, the facts, if people care to look, speak for themselves. We are moving away from an economy that works for people and have instead allowed a top-down education system to be implemented from which the investor class extracts wealth and in the end 50% of kids will be left struggling to get by, like their parents are. Is it any coincidence that they want to control tightly how children are trained to think via common core? You’ll note if you look at the standards that there is very little in there about open-ended problem solving or creative thinking. “Uniformity as sucked the life out of teaching and learning.”
If ed-reform foundations, Wall Street and our legislators really cared about education, they’d be doing whatever they could to reduce class sizes, hire more teachers and build more schools. They’d put their minds together and figure out how to create more living wage jobs (maybe by building more schools). They would denounce regressive taxation and end tax breaks. They would trust teachers to teach instead of spending their money to demoralized the profession and promote charter schools. We are pressuring kids in K-12 to pass tests that even our legislators couldn’t pass and to make life plans when they are 14 years old. For what? Crushing student debt and a lifetime of precarious work.
This is unacceptable.
“Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder a term to the general prey of the rich on the poor.” – Thomas Jefferson
Elizabeth has been a teacher since 1985 and a college instructor since 1992. She co-authored the books “Anatomy and Physiology for English Language Learners and Weapons of Mass Deception, the Billionaire plan to destroy our public schools and what you can do to stop them. She is in favor of kids going to college. She lives in Washington State.
Everyone in the nation is talking about our racist history, but do people know what type of racism is happening today, beneath our noses, under the banner of education reform?
When I was twenty-five, I interviewed at a charter school in Brooklyn.
Before I sat down to talk to the dean, I observed a kindergarten class that looked nothing like any kindergarten class I had ever seen: just shy of thirty children sitting in rows on a carpet, each with legs crossed and hands folded, all completely and utterly silent.
In my interview, the dean asked me what I noticed about the class.
“They were very well behaved,” I said.
“Yes, they were. But they sure don’t come in like that,” he answered. With icy pride in his voice, he said: “It’s only because of the hard work of our staff that they act like that.”
I took the job – foolishly – and soon found out what this “hard work” meant: scholars, as we called them, were expected to be 100% compliant at all times. Every part of the nine-hour school day was structured to prevent any opportunity for deviance; even recess, ten-minutes long and only indoors, consisted of one game chosen for the week on Monday.
We were overseers, really. Our lessons were scripted according to the needs of the upcoming state test, and so we spent our days “catching” scholars when they misbehaved, marking their misdeeds (talking, laughing, wiggling) on charts, and sending them to the dean when they acted their age too many times in one day.
There weren’t any white children at the school, but there I was – a white teacher, snapping at a room full of black children to get them to respond, in unison, to my demands.
Everyone in the nation is talking about our racist history, but do people know what type of racism is happening today, beneath our noses, under the banner of education reform?
With useless, commercial junk-tests as justification, we have been told, for years now, that we must serve up our low-income schools – those schools filled mostly with children of color – to profiteers, who are then free to experiment on children in whatever ways they see fit.
Have you ever seen this video? Watch as the parents – parents who love and value their school – are told that they need a charter network to rescue them:
“Why come here and discombobulate our home?” one parent asks.
They are discombobulating homes everywhere, of course, but communities of color are almost always hit first – and hardest.
Why aren’t more people demanding that these racist institutions and policies be taken down?
Things are about to get much worse, as profiteers are now turning their attention to the measurement and manipulation of the non-academic parts of schooling – how much “grit” a child has, or how compliant he or she is – with computers taking the place of teachers to conduct remediation.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a big fan of educational tax credits. In a speech at the American Federation of Children’s Policy Summit on May 22, she showcased Denisha Merriweather, who used a tax-credit scholarship to attend a church-affiliated private school in Florida. (The American Federation for Children, a group that pushes school privatization, is a group created by Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick.)
Merriweather is the same student President Trump introduced during his address to the Joint Session of Congress when he promoted “school choice”for students in public schools.
In a “scholarship tax credit program,” the money bypasses the state and instead goes through a go-between, a “scholarship granting organization” to a private school to pay a student’s tuition in full or in part. Typically, these organizations keep 10 percent of the money as they pass through funds to private schools.
A scholarship granting organization distributes money to students, who are purportedly “low income”, to attend a private school the organization has selected to include in its portfolio. Granting organizations can select the schools they do business with, whether they are religious schools or schools that are unaccredited.
While these groups have set a standard for “low income” —a family of four with an income of $64,750 or less—family income is not a determining factor for many of the students who receive the scholarships.
Here are four things you need to know as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seeks to establish an education tax credit system for the entire nation:
#1 Education tax credit programs deplete state budgets
Those tax credits deplete states and the Federal government of tax revenue and fill the coffers of private enterprises including religious schools, corporations and wealthy individuals.
As an example, the school-voucher expansion in Arizona could cost the state $24 million a year or more and $140 million is now being diverted from the state treasury to pay private-school tuition for students of any income bracket through a tax credit program. Senate Majority Leader Steve Yarbrough from Arizona has pocketed quite a bit of cash with his Yarbrough’s Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization which has profited to the tune of $116 million via individual tax-credit donations since 1998. Senator Yarborough pays himself, as executive director, $125,000 a year
Alabama set aside $40 million to absorb the loss from tax credits. Indiana’s Center for Tax and Budget Accountability did an Analysis of Indiana School Choice Scholarship Program and concluded that the voucher programs did not achieve its goal of a higher level of academic achievement and the state lost millions in tax revenues due to the state tax credit scholarship program.
According to the Network for Public Education, “Some private schools have received as much as $18,000 per scholarship. Parents can get multiple scholarships for a child from multiple tuition organizations – something the state doesn’t even bother to track”.
#2 Education tax credit programs benefit the wealthy
Usually, when an individual makes a donation to a non-profit, she takes a 30 to 40 percent tax write-off. The education tax credit provides 100 percent-plus in write-offs, making it more attractive to wealthy individuals and corporations.
The tax credit can be used as a dollar-per-dollar write off on Federal taxes and, in some states, it can be used as an additional write-off on state taxes. With a donation to a scholarship grant-making organization, a person, company or corporation can benefit financially, sometimes doubling the tax write-off. The states that allow this double-dipping are Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia.
For the past three years, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Todd Rokita of Indiana have introduced legislation that would create a federal tuition tax credit program called the Educational Opportunities Act (EOA). The two states they represent have tax credit programs that have been profitable to wealthy donors, scholarship grant-making organizations, and private schools.
The tax credit program has become so popular with the wealthy in those states that, according to the report Public Loss, Private Gain, “the entire allotment of available credits is often claimed just hours after state tax officials begin accepting applications. In Georgia, the state’s entire allotment of $58 million in tuition tax credits was claimed in a single day on January 3, 2017. A few months earlier, the same occurred within a matter of hours with regard to $67 million of credits in Arizona and $763,550 in credits in Rhode Island…a journalist in South Carolina estimated that one savvy, anonymous taxpayer was able to reap a profit of between $100,000 and $638,000 in 2014 by stacking state, and possibly federal, deductions on top of tuition tax credits.”
#3 Education tax credit programs pose significant risks to students
Federal civil rights laws do not pertain to private schools, therefore there is no protection students have from discrimination due to race, religion or sexual orientation. Private schools subsidized by the tuition tax credit can also expel students who are performing below grade level and deny acceptance to English Language Learners or students with disabilities. In Arizona, only 3 percent of special needs students have been granted tax credit scholarships.
There is also no common denominator in determining the overall level of competency in basic subjects from one school to the next.
In some states, there is no oversight of a student’s progress using a state or federal proficiency evaluation and there is rarely a demand for financial transparency by the states of the education tax credit system which can lead to fraud.
The financial support provided by these tax credits might not meet the full tuition fee and therefore many low-income students are not able to attend a private school because the family is not able to pay the difference in tuition.
So far, the courts have turned a blind eye to the system of tax credits even though the money is many times funneled into religious institutions which leads us to #4.
#4 Education tax credit programs divert public money to religious indoctrination
Betsy and Dick DeVos want to spread the word about their religion and have been doing so on a statewide basis.
As I wrote in an article titled Betsy DeVos Pushes Online Learning, the first Michigan charter schools were operated by the DeVoses’ close friend, JC Huigenza, with their support, and were essentially Christian schools, with mandatory prayer meetings. The schools were closed after threats of lawsuits by the ACLU.
The New Yorker covered this religious angle in a story on Betsy Devos, noting the church’s official statement on science: “Humanity is created in the image of God; all theorizing that minimizes this fact and all theories of evolution that deny the creative activity of God are rejected.”
Betsy DeVos attended Calvin College, which is owned and operated by the Christian Reformed Church.
“With Pay for Success, state and local leaders will be empowered to fund initiatives that deliver real results for their communities and schools. Rather than being limited by what federal bureaucrats at the Department of Education think best, funding should be more connected to local innovation and successful outcomes. I’m pleased the Senate has voted to approve my amendment, which builds on tremendous success leaders have already seen in my home state of Utah.”
What’s Pay for Success?
It’s telling that Hatch’s short statement is full of buzz works like “empowered”, “local innovation”, and “successful outcomes”, but really doesn’t explain what Pay for Success means or more importantly, how it works.
I think this is deliberate.
Pay for Success is an upbeat re-branding of social impact bonds or SIBs.
In the case of the ESSA, social impact bonds are a way for investors to speculate on education outcomes; essentially making bets on programs and then measuring if kids meet these benchmarks – which trigger a payout to investors by the state or local government agency that signed onto the contract.
In Utah, Hatch’s home state, Goldman Sachs and the investor J.B. Pritzker agreed to invest millions of dollars in an expansion of a preschool program in the Granite School District and later the state as a whole.
The payoff for investors would occur if the expansion of preschool to underserved populations cut down on the number of students requiring special education services later in their academic careers.
The bet was preschool would reduce the number of kids in special education based on scores determined by the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test.
The sell to the school district was the potential savings of $2,600 dollars for every child who didn’t need special education or other remedial services.
The payout plan to Goldman Sacks and J.B. Pritzker is tricky, and makes me wonder if any of the politicians who supported the statewide preschool plan took the time to crunch the numbers and imagine worst case scenarios.
Here’s the terms for The Utah High Quality Preschool Program America’s First “Results-based Financing” for Early Childhood Education.
Determining Pay-for-Success Payments:
— Children participating in the high impact preschool program are given the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test which is a predictive evaluation that will serve as an indicator of their likely usage of special education and remedial services. Students that test below average and are therefore likely to use special education services will be tracked as they progress through 6th grade
— Every year that they do not use special education or remedial services will generate a Pay-forSuccess payment
— School districts receive a fixed per annum payment of approximately $2,600 per student to provide special education and remedial services for students in general education classrooms from the State of Utah. The amount of the Pay-for-Success payment is based on the actual avoided costs realized by the State of Utah
— Pay-for-Success payments will be made equal to 95% of the avoided costs or $2,470 per child for every year, Kindergarten through Sixth Grade, to repay the senior and subordinate debt plus a base interest rate of 5.0%
— Thereafter, Success Payments will equal 40% of the savings, or $1,040 per child per year of special education services avoided, to be paid as Success Fees to Goldman Sachs and Pritzker
And this disclaimer, which in my mind seems to contradict the point made above. I’m thinking interpretation will hinge on whether Goldman Sachs and Pritzker are making money on their investment at the 7 year mark:
— Pay-for-Success payments are only made through 6th grade for each student; but all savings that are generated after that point will be captured by the school district, state and other government entities.
The New York Times took a look at the first year results of the Utah program and found some troubling issues.
First off, Goldman Sachs reported a payout of $260,000 dollars by claiming their program helped 99% of the students enrolled avoid special education, even though the highest rate of prevention in well funded preschool programs is a 50% success rate. Oh, and the Goldman Sachs program isn’t considered to be well funded.
Goldman said its investment had helped almost 99 percent of the Utah children it was tracking avoid special education in kindergarten. The bank received a payment for each of those children.
The big problem, researchers say, is that even well-funded preschool programs — and the Utah program was not well funded — have been found to reduce the number of students needing special education by, at most, 50 percent. Most programs yield a reduction of closer to 10 or 20 percent.
The program’s unusual success — and the payments to Goldman that were in direct proportion to that success — were based on what researchers say was a faulty assumption that many of the children in the program would have needed special education without the preschool, despite there being little evidence or previous research to indicate that this was the case.
Another problem was the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test or P.P.V.T. overestimated the kids at risk for special education services, even though this test isn’t really used as a screener for special education in the first place.
Before Goldman executives made the investment, they could see that the Utah school district’s methodology was leading large numbers of children to be identified as at-risk, thus elevating the number of children whom the school district could later say were avoiding special education. From 2006 to 2009, 30 to 40 percent of the children in the preschool program scored below 70 on the P.P.V.T., even though typically just 3 percent of 4-year-olds score this low. Almost none of the children ended up needing special education.
When Goldman negotiated its investment, it adopted the school district’s methodology as the basis for its payments. It also gave itself a generous leeway to be paid pack. As long as 50 percent of the children in the program avoid special education, Goldman will earn back its money and 5 percent interest — more than Utah would have paid if it had borrowed the money through the bond market. If the current rate of success continues, it will easily make more than that. (bold mine)
Did you catch that, if the inflated rate of success continues – which it probably will based on a faulty benchmark not really used to screen for special education – the state of Utah will end up paying MORE than if it had just purchased a bond upfront to fund the preschool initiative.
Talk about selling snake oil to lawmakers who refuse to read the fine print.
Orrin Hatch and Goldman Sachs, Best Friends for Life.
Now that you know the setup and potential pitfalls of these risky investments, here’s some more information pertinent to Hatch’s fondness for social impact bonds.
First, Goldman Sachs is number 15 on Orin Hatch’s top 20 donor list. Second, Hatch has no qualms about going on Fox News to defend Goldman Sachs agains what the Senator claims to be suspicious government inquires into the investment firm’s behavior.
Another interesting aspect to Hatch’s detail-free praise of Pay for Success, was his demonization of federal bureaucrats.
Pay for Success just substitutes one group of bureaucrats for another. In the case of Utah’s preschool program, the bureaucrats come from the United Way, who act as the intermediary between investors and the district.
I find this troubling as well.
Incentives matter on Wall Street and what gets measured dictates the spoils.
Having the United Way run a program like the preschool initiative invites trouble. Who’s interests will be protected, the investors eager for a profit or a child’s right to an education.
By the way, since the United Way is private, they won’t have to answer to parents, school boards, or FOIA requests.
Would children be pressured to show success and be denied special education services? That’s a hard question with no easy answer.
The United Way also seems to be cozy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, so meting out some business disciple doesn’t seem out of the range of possibilities.
To sum up, Third Sector Capital has put together a nice graphic which explains how social impact bonds work. Get familiar with the concept. It may be closer to your school than you think.
In my next blog post I’ll explain how some members of the Washington State Legislature see social impact bonds as a way of meeting the funding mandate for McCleary.
ELOs: How Community-Based Learning Advances the Cyber Education Agenda
ELO’s are learning experiences that by definition happen OUTSIDE the classroom. This makes them a perfect foil for digital learning. These learning opportunities, pitched as experiential and hands-on, will readily capture the imaginations of students and parents who have been steamrolled by the test-and-punish system. In selling the 21stCentury “redesigned” ecosystem version of education, reformers will play up exciting partnership programs like robotics, filmmaking, and CTE apprenticeships. There will be allusions to educational technology, its importance for 21st century work force skills, but the extent to which this new version of public education relies on adaptive, data-mined modules will be downplayed.
A key tenet of Ed Reform 2.0 is “anytime any place learning.” Detaching education from the normal school day and physical school buildings will permit the transfer of face-to-face classroom instruction to digital platforms. Once implemented, these systems of “personalized learning” will efficiently extract children’s data so their futures can be channeled through black box algorithms, while significantly reducing staff costs since online instructors can theoretically “teach” thousands of children at a time. If reformers were up front about it, “Future Ready Schools” would be a much harder sell. And since they are nothing if not expert at framing their issues, my belief is that they intend to use Extended/Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELOs) as cover for this planned cyber takeover. Most Americans would never willingly trade neighborhood schools for a chrome book education, but reformers will sell the public on project-based learning in communities while minimizing the central role devices are intended to play. Out-of-School-Time (OST) learning will be presented as a welcome relief, an antidote even, to the harm wrought by No Child Left Behind. It’s all part of the plan, so please don’t be fooled.
ELOs are learning experiences that by definition happen OUTSIDE the classroom. This makes them a perfect foil for digital learning. These learning opportunities, pitched as experiential and hands-on, will readily capture the imaginations of students and parents who have been steamrolled by the test-and-punish system. In selling the 21stCentury “redesigned” ecosystem version of education, reformers will play up exciting partnership programs like robotics, filmmaking, and CTE apprenticeships. There will be allusions to educational technology, its importance for 21st century work force skills, but the extent to which this new version of public education relies on adaptive, data-mined modules will be downplayed.
ELOs are vastly different from school-community partnerships of the past. We’re not talking about an organization working closely with a teacher or group of teachers and their classes on a unit of instruction- planning field trips, research opportunities, projects and presentations. This is not about collaboration, organizations coming INTO schools to do their work. No. ELOs are about sending students OUTSIDE schools, individually, to earn credit towards graduation by demonstrating competencies tied to set national standards. While a teacher may work with a student to develop an ELO plan and monitor their progress, they have no instructional role in the process. They are essentially case managers handling the paperwork.
Giving districts the ability to award school credit via proficiency based assessments.
Providing stimulus money to develop new credit-bearing ELOs.
Creating databases that match students to ELO providers.
Transferring public school funding to Out-of-School-Time education programs/partners. Tie funding to mastery rather than enrollment.
Encouraging the use of ELOs as part of school turnaround strategies.
I encourage you to investigate the amount of foundation support being poured into Out-of-School Time (OST) learning where you live. If it’s a major metropolitan area, my guess is there is quite a bit of money flowing. Does your city have a cool new maker space? Neighborhood robotics program? Culturally responsive creative writing center? 21st Century Community Learning Center? Are unusual things showing up in your library? Things like 3D printers and culinary programs? Maybe your town is a HIVE learning community or a LRNG city?
Once you have a sense of the OST programs and their funding sources, consider the following:
Are the foundations funding non-profit community-based learning spaces ALSO advocating for appropriate funding of our public schools, reduced class sizes, access to safe-healthy buildings and adequate instructional materials? And if not, why not?
What interest might those funders have in controlling the public education sphere? Do they influence what gets taught and what does not through their grant making?
How about those community partners? Does the existence of their organization or educational program depend upon continued denial of resources to the schools they serve?
Are the programs being offered by community partners something that would normally have been found IN a school 15 years ago?
Are your community’s OST or after school programs experimenting with digital badging?
What data are these partners collecting on students, and with whom is it shared?
ELOs further privatization interests, but in this case community-based non-profits and workforce partners are the ones who stand to benefit, not charter schools. This is one way Ed Reform 2.0 differs from Ed Reform 1.0. Years of budget cuts have taken their toll on neighborhood schools, and many districts serving majority low-income populations are no longer able to provide a well-rounded curriculum with arts, music, school libraries, sports, and extracurricular activities. As a result, schools have become reliant on public-private partnerships to fill gaps where they can.
In recent years the Community School movement has risen in prominence, and the ranks of organizations vying to meet the needs of students caught in intentionally defunded school systems has swelled. It should be noted that while ELOs are a significant component of Community School movement nationally, they are rarely part of the public discussion. You can read more about issues with a community school model here. It should be noted that Strive Together is a major player in this movement. Pushing pathways from cradle to career, Strive is a program of Knowledgeworks. Knowledgeworks, based in Cincinnati OH, is funded by the Gates Foundation and one of the most prominent advocates for the learning ecosystem model that relies on badges and ELOs.
Unless we call attention to it, few will question the growing role of Out-of-School Time, project-based learning in public education. Even if it means tacitly accepting that due to ongoing austerity this type of learning has less and less of a place WITHIN schools, people are likely to accept it because something is better than nothing. But by making this concession, rather than fighting for the well-resourced schools our children deserve, we normalize the starvation of neighborhood schools and lay the groundwork for the transition to a decentralized learning ecosystem. Schools are being hollowed out. Many of the activities we, as children, were fond of-clubs, plays, and creative writing-are being turned over to the OST sector. Certified teachers with knowledge of child development and pedagogy are being forsaken, abandoned in their device-filled classrooms and left to enforce the data-extraction process. We shouldn’t allow that to happen. We need to reclaim joy and bring it back INTO our schools. Once we start outsourcing credit, elective or core, to community partners the days of neighborhood schools are truly numbered.
Part two will provide background on the rise of ELOs as a tool of education reform as well as examples of how they are being implemented nationally.
There’s piece work employment without financial security or due process.
The opportunity for corporations to pay employees in script instead of actual cash.
Smart Contracts and the possibility of a lifetime of servitude without compensation.
Cradle to grave corporate surveillance of every citizen.
If George Orwell wrote a sequel to 1984, the idea of The Institute for the Future’s Edublocks and The Ledger would have a starring role.
The Institute for the Future (IFTF) prides itself on bringing “people together to make the future—today.”
IFTF is an outgrowth of The Rand Corporation and counts as partners corporate giants in technology, healthcare, manufacturing, and advocacy.
Groups such as AARP, the American Medical Association, AT&T, GM, Microsoft, Kaiser Permanente and Shell – just to name a few of the heavy hitters who have hitched their wagons to IFTF.
In case you’re not familiar with The Rand Corporation, it’s one of the U.S. military’s oldest think tanks, getting it’s start in 1948 as an offshoot of the Douglas Aircraft Company.
One area of interest for The Institute of the Future is education. IFTF’s blog reports on the various attempts to hack the future of education. Anya Kamenetz is considered a truth teller.
Kamenetz has made a career of sharing with America the “hard truths” about higher education and the need for all encompassing learning ecosystems to prepare future-ready knowledge workers. Think, College & Career Ready 2.0.
“You’re one of ONE BILLION people who are using a new technology to track their learning and income. This new technology is known as “The Ledger.”
The video goes on to explain how everything you have ever learned will be tracked in Edublocks, which represents 1 hour of learning in any given subject. Anyone can grant Edublocks including workplaces, schools, informal groups, individuals, and apps.
The Ledger’s role is to keep track of everyone’s Edublocks, which will be displayed in colorful, customized profiles.
Employers can browse these profiles and offer individuals piece work employment – IF they happen to have the desired skill set the employer is looking for.
The ever-helpful Ledger constantly advises users on which skills currently offer the best pay and how to earn Edublocks to build up those skills.
But what happens if you don’t have the money to earn Edublocks? Don’t worry, The Ledger’s dystopian future has you covered.
All you need is a digital investor, who will provide free Edublocks, in exchange for a percentage of your future income. Signing your life away is easy with a Smart Contract which “makes these contracts easy to manage and administer.”
Is it me or does the brave new wold of learning ecosystems sound remarkably similar to piece work sweatshops of the early garment industry. The era of very long work days and rock bottom pay – bluntly, the work until your last breath – pinnacle of capitalism.
Instead of toiling in front of sewing machines, The Ledger upgraded workforce will be using tools similar to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – performing Individual Human Intelligence Tasks or HITs.
What a dismal future. The Ledger is nothing more than an online digital sweatshop with fancy gadgets and apps used to disguise its throwback nature.
All of the elements are in place:
There’s piece work employment without financial security or due process.
The opportunity for corporations to pay employees in script instead of actual cash.
Smart Contracts and the possibility of a lifetime of servitude without compensation.
Cradle to grave corporate surveillance of every citizen.
The only winners in this dark future will be those who don’t have to play the game. And who would that be? The already wealthy, of course.
Is This for Real?
As fantastical sounding as Edublocks may be, the beta version already exist. They’re just called digital badges. Same idea, different name.
I’ll let Former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, explain:
We’re excited that, this year, this competition will serve as a catalyst to advance the potential of digital badges. Badges can help engage students in learning, and broaden the avenues for learners of all ages to acquire and demonstrate – as well as document and display – their skills.
Badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time, to ones that more accurately measure competency. We must accelerate that transition. And, badges can help account for formal and informal learning in a variety of settings.
Today’s technology-enabled, information-rich, deeply interconnected world means learning not only can – but should – happen anywhere, anytime. We need to recognize these experiences, whether the environments are physical or online, and whether learning takes place in schools, colleges or adult education centers, or in afterschool, workplace, military or community settings.
In short, we must begin to see schools, colleges and classrooms as central points – though still very important ones – in larger networks of learning.
As we recognize multiple ways for students to learn, we need multiple ways to assess and document their performance. Students, teachers and administrators are hungry to move beyond fill-in-the-bubble tests, toward assessments that are more varied, immediate, and data-rich. Digital badges are an important step in this direction.
And, badges offer an important way to recognize non-traditional ways of learning. They’re a way to give credence – and ultimately, credit – for the skills learners and teachers acquire in a broader set of learning environments, and a wider range of content.
Badges also empower students and teachers to play an even stronger role in their own learning and development – to seek out the right tools among many resources available, and in their fields of interest – and build a record of what they have mastered.
The 2015 passage of the ESSA opened the door to digital badges by way of innovative assessments and the creation of “next generation learning environments.”
How do you know if digital badges are creeping into your school district?
Stay alert for phrases like: personalized learning, technology-supported learning environments, personalized learning paths, learning that is student-driven and technology-enabled, and blended learning.
Personalized learning is the feel good phrase that gets Edublocks in the door. We can’t let that happen.
I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t an intentional Catch 22 that some people are trying to trap our public schools in– setting them up to fail, making it impossible for them to be creative or independent, and then saying: “See! They’re losers! They don’t ‘innovate’! Sell them off to private enterprises!”
While watching part of NBC’s “Education Nation” (aka the week-long made-for-TV ad for Waiting for ‘Superman) last month, I tuned into the Teacher Town Hall where a teacher from a charter school was asked what made her school successful. “Teachers at our school are given the freedom to innovate!” she replied brightly.
Hmm, I thought. Sounds great. So why aren’t the teachers in my children’s public schools given that same freedom?
Instead, they are increasingly being slipped into the full nelson of a standardized curriculum measured by an ever-increasing barrage of computerized tests, all imposed by a top-down district management. (It feels stifling just to write about it.) Then the education reformers point an accusatory finger at our schools, call them “failing,” and hold up charter schools as exemplars of “innovation.”
And that’s one of the first ironies — or hypocrisies — of the current national dialogue on education reform.
The biggest players in ed reform — President Obama, Ed Secretary Arne Duncan, billionaires Bill Gates and Eli Broad: the “Superman” crowd, let’s call them — keep pushing privately run charter schools as the answer to all that ails our public schools (the central theme of ‘Superman’). One of the main winning traits of charters, they say, is their freedom to “innovate.” Indeed, free of public and school district oversight and mandates, privately run charter schools are granted the right to create their own curricula and empower their teachers to, allegedly, “innovate.” (They’ve also been allowed to exclude and expel students who don’t perform to their liking, a serious flaw of charters that even Secretary Duncan has acknowledged.)
3. Local Control with Extensive Professional Development and Accountability Principals and teachers own critical decisions at their schools related to budgeting, hiring and curriculum customization.
Now, why aren’t our non-charter public schools being given the creative and managerial autonomy that these reformers value in charters? Instead, when it comes to influencing or running our school districts with their corporate management trained superintendents, or their agenda-laden grants, these same reformers impose strictures on our schools and kids that quash innovation.
For example, here in Seattle, why is our district, led by a reformist Broad Academy-trained superintendent, taking autonomy steadily away from individual schools and principals and centralizing it? Why is it telling our teachers they need to follow the central office mandated curriculum exactly? Why is it sending “visitors” from the central office to escort the school principal on pop-ins into classrooms to monitor teachers? (I’ve heard these are called “Learning Walks” — apparently a trademarked term.) I can understand a principal checking on her/his staff, but why the accompanying Thought Police?)
I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t an intentional Catch 22 that some people are trying to trap our public schools in: setting them up to fail, making it impossible for them to be creative or independent, and then saying: “See! They’re losers! They don’t innovate! Let’s sell these schools to the private enterprises of KIPP charters, Green Dot charters, Billy Bob’s Acme Charters & Co.!”
Unfortunately this is just one of many conflicting messages coming from this latest breed of ed reformers. Those who are driving the national dialogue about the direction of our kids’ public education — from President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and lurking in the shadows with their open checkbooks, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Waltons, the Fishers and the Dells — are saying one thing out of one side of their mouths and another thing out of the other.
Here are some other examples of ed reform doublespeak:
“CLASS SIZE DOESN’T MATTER (except in charters)”
How many times have we heard the reformers declare that “class size doesn’t matter”? They claim that an “excellent” teacher can somehow transcend overstuffed classrooms and reach all kids. If this were true, then why do private schools and charters tout smaller class sizes and individualized attention as a key advantage over public schools?
Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone reportedly has a school with class sizes that average 15 kids, with two licensed teachers to every classroom! That’s a private school — and every parent’s — dream. From the Oct. 13, 2010, New York Times:
In the tiny high school of the zone’s Promise Academy I, which teaches 66 sophomores and 65 juniors (it grows by one grade per year), the average class size is under 15, generally with two licensed teachers in every room. There are three student advocates to provide guidance and advice, as well as a social worker, a guidance counselor and a college counselor, and one-on-one tutoring after school.
And from the Green Dot charter company web site:
1. Small, Safe, Personalized Schools All Green Dot schools are small (no more than 560 students when fully developed), ensuring that each student will not go unnoticed. In addition, small schools are safe and allow students to receive the personalized attention they need to learn effectively. Classes at each school will be kept as small as financially possible with a target student to teacher ratio of 27:1.
So apparently class size does matter to ed reformers when it comes to charters, but somehow not when it comes to the rest of the kids in regular schools.
“AN ‘EXCELLENT’ TEACHER CAN TRANSCEND EVERYTHING!”
How often have we heard the line: “The single most important factor in a child’s academic success is the teacher”? Here it is in the recent “manifesto” of (soon to be former) District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and NY schools chief Joel Klein et al:
As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.
And here’s NBC (in an Education Nation press release) parroting this line:
Research and school-based evidence around the country now confirms that the most important variable affecting the success of the student is the effectiveness of the teacher, and the second most important variable is the effectiveness of the principal. Those two factors far outweigh the socioeconomic status, the impact of parental involvement or class size.
Problem is, these statements are false.
The most significant indicators and influences on a child’s success in school are what’s going on in these kids’ lives at home. In other words, their socioeconomic background and home life. Of course academic ability is not determined by race, gender or economic status. But success — the possibility of a child being allowed to fulfill her or his potential — is necessarily influenced by how much support they get at home, the stability of this home life and whether or not this child comes to school hungry each morning.
For the ed reformers to say that none of this matters — all you need is an “excellent” teacher — is false and another rigged scheme: rigged for failure. They may as well be dunking teachers in water to see if they are witches.
It defies common sense to say that a teacher, however brilliant, can transcend all challenges a child brings to school, can navigate a classroom of any size and any needs, and if the child does not succeed in school (in ed reformspeak that only means doing well on standardized tests), it is clearly unfair and inaccurate to lay the blame entirely on the teachers.
A great teacher does make a difference, for sure. But a teacher alone cannot determine a child’s academic success.
Despite this repeated canard, it’s clear that Geoffrey Canada, one of ed reforms’ heroes, recognizes these facts. Why else would his HCZ offer all the wraparound services that it does — Baby College, medical and dental care for students and their families? This is a clear acknowledgment of the fact that a child in poverty needs a great deal more than a stellar teacher to have a fair shot at educational success.
“AN ‘EFFECTIVE’ TEACHER IN EVERY CLASSROOM (but 5 five weeks of training will do!)”
I also find it rather hypocritical for the ed reformers to say they care about pushing academic achievement for all kids, and measure the success of their reforms by how many kids go to college — one of Canada’s benchmarks for HCZ — and then turn around and utterly dismiss the higher education of professional teachers.
Returning to the increasingly silly “manifesto”:
A 7-year-old girl won’t make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master’s degree — she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success.
If master’s degrees are so useless, then why don’t we just eliminate all academic degrees in all fields and just hire “effective, engaging” young credentialed dentists and doctors too? Does anyone really need an MBA? Or a law degree, for that matter?
On the one hand the reformers say they want an “effective” or “excellent” teacher in every classroom. On the other hand they promote sending Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America, Inc. trainees — who have only five weeks of training and are only required to commit to two years on the job — into the most struggling and challenging urban schools in the nation. Only 34 percent of TFA recruits stay in the field for a third year. Teachers don’t hit their stride until about the fifth. So most TFA-ers quit before they have even become “effective” teachers. (Michelle Rhee herself is a TFA graduate who only stayed for a few years in the field, and tells some pretty damning stories about her own mistakes as an inexperienced teacher.)
If the ed reformers were serious about promoting and supporting excellent teachers in every classroom, they would support well-trained professionals who are committed to the kids and the profession for the long term. Instead they disparage dedicated lifetime teachers as dead wood and promote young short-termers as the salvation. And their incessant teacher-bashing utterly undermines any claims they may have of “supporting” teachers.
“MONEY DOESN’T MATTER (except in the Harlem Children’s Zone)”
“Money doesn’t matter” the reformers like to say. I think I even heard President Obama say that recently, alas. And yet, the most comprehensive example of a charter model, Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, has an operating budget and net assets in the multi-millions.
In 2009, the Harlem Children’s Zone had assets of nearly $200 million, and the project’s operating budget this year is $84 million, two-thirds of it from private donations. Last month, the Goldman Sachs Foundation pledged $20 million toward constructing an additional school building. With two billionaires, Stanley Druckenmiller and Kenneth Langone, on the board, its access to capital is unusually strong.
Canada’s Zone, at least acknowledges that underprivileged kids need a great deal of support inside and out of the classroom and school in order to succeed. His program offers social support services and medical services to these kids and their families for years, which is great. But he is given millions and millions of dollars to do it. That gives the lie to all those who say that money is not part of the solution to creating better schools. It also gives the lie to the reformers’ teacher-bashing mantra that somehow an “effective” or even “excellent” teacher can transcend all society’s ills.
It does take money to hire enough teachers to reduce class sizes, to maintain safe and clean facilities, invest in solid and inspiring curricula and enrichment. That’s an indisputable fact. We as a nation have not made education a funding priority. All my life, schools have been holding bake sales, as the famous bumper sticker laments, scrambling to pay for basics. It is a national shame. And the Obama/Duncan lottery of Race to the Top is unconscionable in that it does not fund all 50 states equally or at all.
So here’s where I’m at with this: Everything good the reformers tout about private control of our public schools via charters could be given to our existing public schools without handing over the control and finances of our schools to private charter franchise operators.
Smaller class sizes, more creative autonomy for teachers, local autonomy for schools, non-standardizing curricula that allow for more innovation, better resources for the kids from greater allocations of money — all of this is possible in our existing schools, if our superintendent, school board and central administration office would allocate our school district’s resources properly. But they don’t — as the recent damning state audit of Seattle’s School District revealed. (That’s why a growing number of parents and The Seattle Times support a “No” vote on the school levy Nov. 2 — unprecedented in a town that always backs school levies).
ALL public schools should offer ALL these things to ALL kids, no private-charter franchise middlemen required, and no lottery required either.
UPDATE: Two mistakes have been corrected from the original post.
Voters for Washington Children spent $15,000 in digital ads AGAINST Luis Moscoso in the District 1 Senate race. In addition, Voters for Washington Children spent $10,000 AGAINST Branden Durst in the Legislative District 29, Representative race.
Our sincerest apologies to Luis Moscoso and Branden Durst.
Nowhere is the chasm between the hard reality of our political system and the American ideals of merit, choice, and freedom more on display than during an election cycle.
Money matters – a lot.
The challenge for large money donors is how to spend big on your candidate(s) without offending the voters you’re trying to persuade. Voters understand politics is a dirty game, but they still believe in the idea that democracy should work for everyone.
Big donors have come up with a practical two step solution to this problem:
Keep the money moving through various PACs.
When it’s time to spend the money, use independent expenditures to further mask the source.
Openly supporting charter schools is a still a risky position for many politicians in Washington State. Let’s take a look at how pro-charter PACs supported their preferred candidates through the use of a PAC with a different name and independent expenditures.
The Name Game
Between July and August of 2016, three PACs contributed $265,500 dollars to Voters for Washington Children. They were:
Voters for Washington Children contracted with a group called RALLY in San Francisco to produce digital ads and mailers for the candidates Stand for Children, DFER, and Washington Charters PAC supported.
Remember the charter school ads that ran during Seahawks games last year? RALLY was behind them. They also bused kids to Olympia to testify for the charter bill and coordinated all of those heartfelt cards and letters sent to the state Legislature.
The Washington State Charter Schools Association, along with coalition members Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), Stand for Children, the League of Education Voters, and leaders from the business community, partnered with RALLY to find and drive a solution that saved the existing schools and reinstated the will of the voters. RALLY developed and managed a high-impact legislative advocacy campaign that forced legislators, especially elected Democrats, to confront the prospect of being held responsible for closing public schools that serve a racially and economically diverse student population – or taking action to support their constituents.
To deliver our message, RALLY created a campaign that truly put parents and students front and center. We built, encouraged, and supported a strong grassroots advocacy team that made more than 1,000 calls per week to elected officials, flooded legislative offices with homemade postcards and letters, and brought hundreds of people to Olympia for multiple rallies to keep schools open. A statewide petition activated 20,000 new public charter supporters and created a backbone for a strategic digital effort that augmented the on-the-ground tactics.
Grassroots efforts were coupled with an aggressive paid media campaign designed to make it impossible for state leaders to ignore the plight of public charters. RALLY produced four television ads, which aired during Seattle Seahawks games and nightly newscasts. Additionally, voters in key swing districts around the state received a series of direct mail, robo-calls, and targeted earned media. Statewide, every major newspaper endorsed saving the schools and called on Democrats to stay true to their social justice roots. These tactics were combined with a PAC fundraising effort, a relentless online digital presence, and a robust social media strategy.
RALLY’s Independent Expenditure Ads and Mailings
How did the candidates supported by the pro-charter PACs do in the primary? Let’s take a look at the races where RALLY’s services were put to use:
Legislative District 29-State Representative Pos. 1
David Sawyer, Democrat, Representative, 29th District
7/26 $10,000 for digital ads AGAINST Branden Durst, Democrat
7/27 $10,000 for digital ads
Legislative District 1-State Senator
Guy Palumbo, Democrat, State Senate, District 1
7/21 $10,925 for digital ads
7/23 $11,714.55 for mailing
7/26 $15,000 for digital ads AGAINST Luis Moscoso, Democrat
Legislative District 5-State Senator
Mark Mullet, Democrat, State Senate, District 5
7/21 $10,658.19 direct mail
7/23 $16,189.83 two mailings
7/26 $11,525.07 direct mail
Legislative District 41-State Senator
Stephen Litzow, Republican, District 41, Senate
7/22 $4,000 digital ads
7/25 $19,930.28 direct mail
7/26 $16,782.63 direct mail
Not to be forgotten, 0n 7/27 RALLY was contracted to produced $30,000 worth of digital ads for Steven Hobbs, Democrat, who ran for the Lieutenant Governor position during the primary. Hobbs ended up coming in fourth after Cyrus Habib, Marty McClendon, and Karen Fraser.
Besides the Lieutenant Governor’s race, every campaign where RALLY’s services were engaged resulted in one of Voters for Washington Children’s candidates advancing to the general election.
Seems like Stand for Children Washington PAC, Washington Charters PAC, and Democrats for Education Reform Washington PAC got a solid return on their investment.
In a scant few months, K12 Inc. and its fluctuating performance on Wall Street are proving that the combination of being a publicly traded company and operating in the school marketplace can lead to heightened levels of scrutiny in a growing but controversial sector of education.
On Dec. 12, the common stock price for the company, the nation’s largest for-profit operator of online K-12 schools, sat healthily at $28.79 per share, a dip from highs of $39.37 earlier in the year but a $10 increase from two years before.
The following day, The New York Times published a front-page article casting K12 Inc. as the center of a broken for-profit online school movement. K12, the newspaper said, yielded big profits despite data suggesting its students were performing well below average.
K12 Inc. has been able “to use education as a source of government-financed business, much as military contractors have capitalized on Pentagon spending,” the article said.
Three days later, K12 Inc. stock, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, had plummeted 34 percent, to $18.90 a share.
K12 at a Glance
Public Offering: 2007
New York Stock Exchange Symbol: LRN
Founders: Ronald J. Packard (formerly of Knowledge Schools, McKinsey & Co., Goldman Sachs), William J. Bennett (former U.S. Secretary of Education; no longer with the company)
FY 2011 Revenue: $522 million
FY 2011 Net Income: $12.8 million
Outstanding Shares: 36,381,336 (as of Dec. 31, 2011)
Current public school enrollment: 105,070
States with operations: 29, plus the District of Columbia
Employees: 2,500 (as of June 30, 2011)
SOURCE: Education Week
Some education experts excoriated the company, for-profit education, and online schools. Others have picked apart the criticism as one-sided and unempirical. Either way, the company occupies a complex space in education. K12 and other education providers can find it especially tricky to operate as public companies. (“Publicly Traded Ed.Companies Are Rare,” this issue.)
The Business Model
K12 Inc.’s contracts with school districts are paid for with public dollars. It must answer to taxpayers and navigate the increased focus on accountability and performance data in public schools. But as a publicly traded company, it also must answer to shareholders and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Just over a month after the New York Times article was published, a K12 Inc. shareholder filed a federal lawsuit against the company. The suit claims its executives, specifically Chief Executive Officer Ronald J. Packard and Chief Financial Officer Harry T. Hawks, pumped up stock prices by misleading investors with false student-performance claims.
Company officials say the criticisms are exaggerated.
“I’m a big believer in transparency and accountability. I do think the more visible you are, the easier it is to try and attack you,” Mr. Packard said in an interview last week. “For reasons I don’t fully understand, there are a lot of people who don’t like for-profit companies in education.”
K12 Inc. is expected to generate around $680 million in revenue this year, from a variety of sources. It sells K-12, college-preparatory, and foreign-language curricula to school districts, individual schools, and home-schoolers; operates online and blended-learning private schools domestically and abroad; and sells education software and learning-management systems to schools.
Recently, the company has bought all or part of companies that provide similar products, including online schools operator Kaplan Virtual Education, education software maker American Education Corp., and Web International Education Group, a China-based provider of English-language courses.
But its management of public online charter schools is by far its most-scrutinized line of business. K12 Inc. is the rare company where the performance of its end-users—students—can have an impact on the bottom line. A significant portion of the income for online school operators is tied to enrollment, and if student-performance numbers are down, parents may be less likely to enroll their children and the virtual schools could risk being shut down.
According to the lawsuit filed against K12 Inc., the Herndon, Va.-based company misled shareholders and inflated stock prices by not disclosing data showing that K12 Inc. students perform below state averages and by not being truthful about student-to-teacher ratios and student-recruitment practices.
“I’m more convinced than ever that there are valid claims against the company, but also the business model has questions that need to be answered,” said Richard Gonnello, a lawyer with the New York City-based firm Faruqi & Faruqi LLP. Mr. Gonnello represents David Hoppaugh, a K12 Inc. shareholder from Cado Parish, La., who filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. After a 60-day window for other shareholders to join the suit as part of a class action, a lead plaintiff and trial court will be determined.
The suit says that “additional facts supporting the allegations” will be submitted after that window.
“K12 disputes the claims and will vigorously defend itself,” company spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said about the lawsuit. He and Mr. Packard declined to comment further on the suit because it is ongoing.
Most of the allegations in court documents center around the New York Times article, but specific instances in which Mr. Packard allegedly misled investors about test scores stand out.
In separate instances in February and March of 2011, Mr. Packard told investment analysts that K12 Inc. students’ performance exceeded state averages in terms of proficiency and test scores.
In a presentation given to investors at that time, a bar chart, titled “Academic Performance Relative to State Average Across Six States,” shows a purple bar with +18 next to it and “Math” beneath it, and a green bar with +20 and “Reading.” No source is listed for the data.
Mr. Kwitowski said he could not comment further on the data because that information is related to the lawsuit.
The suit also says that in October 2011, on a conference call with investors, Mr. Packard said the Agora Cyber Charter School in Pennsylvania (mislabeled in the suit as “Aurora Virtual Charter School”) produced test scores “higher than the typical school on state-administered tests for growth.”
The New York Times article that caused stock prices to drop precipitously cited data that Agora students performed well below the average for Pennsylvania students in reading and math. Agora enrolls more than 8,000 students and, in fiscal 2011, accounted for 13 percent of K12 Inc.’s overall revenue.
“Plaintiff would not otherwise have purchased or acquired K12 stock had plaintiff known the truth,” the suit says.
Following each of the February, March, and October 2011 instances cited in the suit, K12 Inc.’s stock prices improved negligibly.
In a Dec. 13 response to the Times article, the company said the student-performance measurement used for Agora—adequate yearly progress, or AYP, mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act—was “broken” and not representative of online schools that enroll large numbers of students across states.
In an interview with Education Week, Mr. Packard admitted that test scores had slipped. But he also pointed to data showing that arriving K12 Inc. students, typically from relatively low socioeconomic backgrounds, perform better on proficiency exams the longer they enroll in its schools.
A common criticism of online schools, however, including those run by K12 Inc., is high student-turnover rates.
In individual states, the company points to the K-12-operated Florida Virtual Academy’s rating of A on its state accountability report between 2006 and 2009. (That school is not to be confused with the Florida Virtual School, the largest state-sponsored virtual school.)
K12 also cites the above-state-average proficiency levels of most grade levels at the company-run Ohio Virtual Academy last year, though the school did not make AYP.
And University of Arkansas researchers found that a cohort of about 180 students at the K12-operated Arkansas Virtual Academy achieved larger performance gains on Arkansas Benchmark exams between 2008 and 2011 than a similar group of students in traditional schools.
But in Agora’s case, the school performed poorly on the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System for 2011. The school’s average growth index, which measures performance on state tests, is minus 12.1, among the lowest in the state.
More Contracts Signed
K12 Inc. has signed 200 local contracts nationwide since December, Mr. Packard said during a conference call with analysts Feb. 7, following the release of the company’s quarterly financial report. The company reported a 29.1 percent increase in revenue from the same quarter the previous year and an increase in enrollment from 98,300 students to 143,900, but a 50 percent decrease in operating income, attributed to increased costs.
In addition to the article by The New York Times, recent reports by The Arizona Republic, the Detroit Free Press, the Tampa Bay Times, and CNN have questioned the effectiveness of virtual schools.
“Do we see questions about it? Yes,” Mr. Packard said on the conference call, referring to the bad publicity. “Is it affecting us? I think it’s too early to tell.”
Mr. Packard was asked if the company would do more to seek out independent data to counteract poor performance numbers for online schools that have been reported recently.
“We’re planning to work more with outside researchers than we’d done previously,” Mr. Packard said.
On the Feb. 7 call, analysts also focused on an $8 million reduction in fiscal 2012 expected revenue (down to $680 million in revenue), related to potential budget cutbacks and policy changes on the state level.
Mr. Packard would not disclose details on the measures, including in what states they may occur. He did say the measures were not related specifically to K12 Inc.
Trend Eyed Warily
Overall, states are cautiously embracing online schools, including those with for-profit management. Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Oregon, and Tennessee recently passed measures making virtual schools more easily established, helping to spur K12 Inc.’s enrollment growth. Mississippi is considering a virtual charter school bill.
But other states are beginning to grapple with some of the ethical considerations that come with for-profit and virtual schooling.
In Pennsylvania, superintendents are asking the state legislature to examine the per-student costs being paid to cyber schools run by management organizations versus the costs of cyber schools run by districts.
Thomas Seidenberger, the superintendent of the 8,000-student East Penn school district, in Lehigh County, said his district pays $8,800 for each student who attends a cyber school, including Agora, despite “dismal” test scores. Twenty-six East Penn students attend Agora, he said.
Along with neighboring districts, East Penn offers its own cyber school with an in-house curriculum and technology services contracted to a Pittsburgh company. Thirty East Penn students are enrolled at the school at $4,400 per student, Mr. Seidenberger said.
“I’m not opposed to choice, but we think we’ve designed a model that’s fair to parents and students and fair to taxpayers,” he said.
In response to Mr. Seidenberger’s information on costs, Mr. Packard said: “My guess is they aren’t counting all of their costs.”
In Franklin County, Ohio, Judge John F. Bender made a potentially precedent-setting ruling on Feb. 6 that White Hat Management, a for-profit, privately held operator of online schools throughout Ohio, must disclose financial records with information on how it manages its schools. Ninety-six percent of White Hat’s payments derive from public funds, the ruling says.
Many of the schools that are plaintiffs in the lawsuit against White Hat have struggled academically, and a few of them have closed, said James D. Colner, a lawyer representing the Ohio schools.
Charles R. Saxbe, a lawyer representing White Hat, said the company plans to appeal the judge’s order, which he described as using “tortured reasoning.”
Judge Bender’s ruling that “the White Hat defendants are public officials” is a “groundbreaking decision” that could serve as a model in other states, Mr. Colner said. K12 Inc. must disclose its financial documents because it is a public company, but the Ohio order may have broader ramifications.
In Michigan, a bill that would remove a cap on online schools and enrollment has narrowly passed at the committee level in the legislature, but could stall before a full vote, according to local reports.
K12 Inc., the nation’s largest provider of online charter schools, where low-paid teachers manage as many as 250 students at a time and communicate with their pupils only through email and phone. The corporation, whose CEO Ron Packard received $5 million in total compensation in 2011 (and owns around $24 million in shares), is on the ALEC Education Task Force and its lobbyist Lisa Gillis has Chaired ALEC’s Special Needs Subcommittee. According to a report in the New York Times, students in K12, Inc. schools often perform very poorly, and some K12 teachers claim that they have been encouraged to pass failing students so that the company can receive more reimbursement from states. K12 receives an average of between $5,500 and $6,000 for every student on its rosters — the same amount that would be spent for students attending a brick-and-mortar school, despite K12 not having to pay for cafeteria, gyms, busing, or heat and air conditioning — and much of K12’s profits are spent on advertising targeted at increasing enrollment, rather than on investments in education. At K12’s Agora Cyber Charter School, which produces more than 10% of the company’s revenue, nearly 60% of students are behind grade level in math, nearly 50% are behind in reading, and a third do not graduate on time.
For more on ALEC, see Bill Moyers special United States of ALEC:
I wrote an article recently about a post in “the 74” on their preponderance of interest in charter schools in Washington State. With sponsors such as the Waltons and Michael Bloomberg, both proponents of charter schools, who could be surprised?
Because of the attention they were giving to the battle over charter schools in my state, I decided to set the record straight because of the echo chamber of mis-statements used throughout the corporate and privately owned media about charter schools and amplified by slick new websites like “the 74”. I responded in an article in the Progressive titled Washington’s Charter School Fight—Let’s Set the Record Straight.
Today I came across an article in AlterNet that describes how “the 74” was established and tells the story of how big money tries as best they can to control the media and the message.
The former anchor is helping the billionaire-backed charter lobby spread the gospel of education reform.
Perhaps guided by the old adage that you have to spend money to make money, the champions of education “reform” have poured billions into the effort to privatize and profit from America’s schools. Those funds are used on multiple fronts: launching charter schools, underwriting the political campaigns of politicians, and of course, investing in media to propagate the free-market privatization vision. Among the most visible properties in this effort is the Seventy Four, the well-funded, power broker-backed education news website run by former journalist-turned-school privatization activist Campbell Brown. Launched last year, the site’s reported $4 million annual budget comes from a collective of school privatization’s big hitters: The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Jonathan Sackler (of OxyContin producer Purdue Pharma) and the Walton Family Foundation.
Philanthropy of this sort has an endgame—the privatization of America’s public schools—and media manipulation is an essential part of a winning strategy. Brown, leveraging her longstanding image as a truth-seeking newsperson in service of her new brand as an earnest education reformer, has been indispensable to this effort. As the head of the Seventy Four, under the guise of providing hard-hitting education news, she leads one of the key media efforts to push the anti-union, pro-privatization message of the charterization movement, all while keeping its billionaire backers out of the picture and off the front page.
Among those betting on Brown’s brand, the Walton Foundation has been notoriously dogged in its efforts. Run by the family behind Walmart, the foundation has already spent $1 billion over the last 20 years on its education vision and recently committed an additional billion to bolster charter development. Thanks to their bottomless coffers, privatization pushers like Walton not only fund media entities that openly promote their agenda, but contribute to those that don’t seem to carry water for charter marketers at all. According to Walton’s most recent annual report, the foundation provides money to “shape public policy” to a list of grantees that includes the Atlantic Monthly Group, the New York Times and National Public Radio. The art of detecting if and how Walton money affects the editorial tone of these entities is at best imprecise. But for traditional public education defenders, it’s a relationship that merits interrogation.
The billionaires and hedge fund millionaires heavily investing in the charter industry, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Eli Broad and beyond, are engaged in a multi-pronged strategy to take over public schools while building an editorial army of proselytizers to spread the gospel of privatization. Like her partners in the site, Brown has spent years challenging tenure rules, attacking teachers unions and pushing for market-driven education. Unlike her partners, who quietly funnel money into corporate education reform from the shadows, Brown has been both vocal and visible in her advocacy. Though she’s not the only one, she has become the primary media mouthpiece for the school privatization agenda.
How did Brown go from journalist to one of the loudest voices for education reform?
Two years after leaving television news in 2010, Brown penned a controversial op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. In it, she accused teachers unions of “resisting almost any change aimed at improving our public schools,” and suggested that the New York City teachers union helps sexual predators remain in the classroom. Brown wrote that union officials, whom she paints as almost cartoonishly nefarious, have created an arbitration process rigged to favor the guilty. Citing three cases over two school years in which wholly independent arbitrators made poor calls, Brown argued that “New York City’s schools chancellor and districts statewide must have the power to fire sexual predators.” In the end, she seemed to suggest the arbitration process should be scrapped altogether.
Brown left a lot out of the discussion to make her case stand. For starters, every teacher deserves due process, which unions, the clear target of much of Brown’s ire, fought hard for them to obtain. She ignores the fact that the union contract—an agreement made between the union and the schools chancellor—already includes a zero-tolerance policy for educators found guilty of sexual misconduct. As American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten pointed out to Brown via Twitter, the union only defends teachers against allegations that are found to be false. Arbitrators, it cannot be stressed enough, are independent, and are selected jointly by the union and the New York City Department of Education, both of which can call for removal should they see fit.
Andy Kroll, writing in Mother Jones, notes that while Brown makes it seem as if the union pulls the strings in these cases, there’s little about the process it controls. “New York state law…mandates that any teacher convicted of a sex crime be automatically fired. It is the law, not union contracts, that requires that an independent arbitrator hear and mete out punishment in cases of sexual misconduct that fall outside criminal law. The quickest route to changing that policy may be lobbying lawmakers in Albany, not hammering teachers and their unions.”
There was one more item Brown neglected to mention in her piece, a bit of information that drew the most attention of all. Her husband, Dan Senor, was at the time an advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and a board member of StudentsFirst. The latter group, founded by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, has been on the frontlines of the school privatization fight against teachers unions and in favor of charterization. Media Matters pointed out that Brown’s failure to disclose that information seemed odd, not only because she is a seasoned journalist, but because she had pointed out her connection in a previous editorial she’d written that was critical of Barack Obama.
Brown responded with a piece in Slate in which she suggested she was just learning the ropes about this whole journalism thing. “I never thought I was harboring a dark secret. But if you live in the overlapping world of politics and media, as I am learning, anything less than full transparency can potentially do you in.” As Kroll notes, Brown directed a healthy dose of snark at the teachers union, writing, “Here I failed to disclose because I stupidly did not connect the teachers’ unions’ opposition to charter schools to their support for a system that protects teachers who engage in sexual misconduct. My sincerest apologies to the teachers unions for not fully appreciating how wrong they are on not one but two issues. As you may have guessed, I am not feeling very apologetic.”
Pressing on in her mission, Brown founded and funded a “watchdog group” called the Parents Transparency Project, which in 2013 went so far as to create a $100,000 television ad challenging New York City mayoral candidates to “stand up to the teachers unions.” The commercial essentially accused the union of allowing 128 teachers accused of sexual misconduct to remain in the classroom without facing repercussions. But as the Washington Post noted, those allegations were misleading.
While some teachers accused of misconduct had remained on the job, the ad distorted several aspects of the emotional issue. One is that 33 of them had been fired. The balance were either fined, suspended or transferred for minor, non-criminal complaints. The other was the ad’s implication that the city’s main teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, had impeded the disciplinary process. As the union pointed out, however, under state law, non-criminal complaints against teachers are handled by independent arbitrators. Neither the union nor the mayor had a say in such cases.
The ad had little impact on the mayoral race, but Brown was undeterred. In late 2013, she established the Partnership for Educational Justice (PEJ), a nonprofit singularly dedicated to filing lawsuits to overturn New York’s tenure laws. This was a broader strike on teachers and teachers unions, one which relied on the erroneous idea that student failure could largely be chalked up to educators who remain in the system too long yet fail to do their jobs. Brown’s supporters in this campaign were precisely who you might expect. Though getting her to admit it would prove to be difficult.
Who else is backing Brown’s website and advocacy groups?
Stay with me here, because this can get a little confusing.
In 2014, Brown appeared on The Colbert Report to promote the Partnership for Educational Justice, which had just filed a lawsuit to strike down teacher tenure laws in New York State. The suit was modeled on a California case in which a court ruled teacher job protection laws in the state were unconstitutional. (The case is currently being appealed.) Brown cited a number of “facts” in opposition to teacher tenure that have already been refuted by research. Then, when asked by the Comedy Central host where her organization’s money comes from, Brown deflected the question twice, then flat out refused to answer.
“I’m not going to reveal who the donors are,” Brown stated, because people opposed to her efforts “are also going to go after people who are funding this.”
Despite heading up an organization that claims its mission is to “bring transparency” to education policy, Brown seemed to have decided that same transparency wasn’t required on her part. Oddly, the trusted newsperson-cum-determined privatization proponent steadfastly refused to live up to the principles that ostensibly define both.
Mother Jones’ Andy Kroll had by then already reported that Brown’s group had worked with Tusk Strategies, the same consulting firm that previously worked with StudentsFirst, the Michelle Rhee organization where Brown’s husband is a boardmember. Brown’s organization also worked with a Republican consulting firm, Revolution Agency, whose partners, “include Mike Murphy, a well-known pundit and former Romney strategist; Mark Dion, former chief of staff to Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.); and Evan Kozlow, former deputy director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.” (“The domain name for Parents Transparency Project’s website was registered by two Revolution employees: Jeff Bechdel, Mitt Romney’s former Florida spokesman, and Matt Leonardo, who describes himself as ‘happily in self-imposed exile from advising Republican candidates.'”)
Based on IRS filings, Politico determined that between December 2013 and November 2014, Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice raised $3 million. A chunk of those funds, $300,000, was paid to the Incite Agency, a public relations firm founded by former Obama administration press secretary Robert Gibbs and campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. Perhaps this is what Brown means when she says her work is nonpartisan: her efforts are supported by numerous entities pushing to privatize our schools across party lines.
It’s worth noting that Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice is also working with Mercury Public Affairs; Stefan Friedman, a partner in the company, sits on the Partnership for Educational Justice’s board. Mercury’s clients include Alliance Charter Schools in Los Angeles, which a court recently ordered to cease its anti-union organizing efforts. Mercury also counts among its clients Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan (who presumably hired it to handle spin as he attempts to retain political power despite allowing thousands to be poisoned by lead-tainted water).
Another former client of Mercury? Walmart, which fired the agency after one of its staffers pretended to be a reporter to infiltrate a press conference by a pro-labor group. United Teachers Los Angeles union also notes that Mercury currently handles PR for Great Public Schools Now, an initiative backed by billionaire Eli Broad and the Waltons to privatize a significant portion of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Despite her initial refusal to name donor sources, the Walton Family Foundation’s 2014 Annual Report also lists Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice as a grantee, one given the task of “shap[ing] public policy.” (A 2015 New York Magazine interview with Brown also identifies the Broad family as a contributor.) That’s the same Walton Family Foundation that, as previously noted, has invested in Campbell Brown’s education news website the Seventy Four. An investigation by Edushyster also found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Mercury handles PR for the Seventy Four.
There are myriad connections between Brown and the pro-charter, anti-union lobby. It’s just a matter of unraveling them.
Beyond Brown: Who’s funding your education media?
It’s not just Brown, though. A look at the back end of education media reveals plenty of outlets that are funded by those seeking to displace public schools in favor of a market-driven system. Media Bullpen, published by Walton grantee Center for Education Reform, bills itself as an education “media watchdog,” and receives funds from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Walton family and the Gates Foundation. (The Columbia Journalism Review notes a managing editor job ad explicitly sought a “passionate advocate for education reform.”) Education Post, “a nonprofit, nonpartisan communications organization,” launched with promises to promote “an honest and civil [education] conversation,” as well as $12 million in startup fundsprovided in part by “the Broad Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies [and] the Walton Family Foundation.” (Per the Washington Post, the site’s three areas of focus are “K-12 academic standards, high-quality charter schools and how best to hold teachers and schools accountable for educating students,” the Holy Trinity of education reform.) Brown’s Seventy-Four, it turns out, is just another holding in the portfolio of the education reform lobby.
Not every group is so nakedly apparent in its goals. Well-respected education blogs including Chalkbeat and Education Week both receive funds from the Walton Family Foundation (in the latter case, specifically for “coverage of school choice and parent-empowerment issues,” a long-winded way of saying pro-charter pieces.) The 3,000-strong Education Writers Association receives money from Gates and Walton, while the L.A. Times—which maintains that it retains editorial control—receives funds from Broad for its Education Matters Digital initiative. As mentioned above, the Walton foundation provides money to an unexpected list of progressive entities. As Inside Philanthropy puts it “[i]t’s heartening to see philanthropy coming to the rescue of journalism. But the trend is also problematic…Nowhere is the influence of private money over public life more pronounced than in K-12 education and yet, as it turns out, the specialized media most likely to raise questions about the trend are themselves supported by foundations.”
We haven’t even gotten to various other media campaigns guided by the invisible hand of school privatizers and built on a foundation of billionaire corporate reform stacks. Gates and Broad both underwrote the multi-year “Education Nation” broadcasting initiative, which brought education-focused programming to NBC staples “such as ‘Nightly News’ and ‘Today’ and on the MSNBC, CNBC and Telemundo TV network.” The Walton Family Foundation reportedly provided the cash for Chicago Public Schools to purchase ad space for videos to spin the closures of 50 traditional public school even as charters increased in the city.
Walton was also among the funders for ads pillorying New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio after he rejected three charter proposals from Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies charter chain. (Education blogger Diane Ravitch writes thatthe commercials “showed the faces of adorable children, all of them being kicked out of ‘their’ school by a vengeful mayor who hates charter schools.”) From union-bashing, teacher-blaming film Waiting For Superman (outreach and engagement funds by Walton; additional supporting monies from a host of school privatizers) to its brethren Won’t Back Down (Walton and other playersfactor in here, too), the level of media infiltration stunning.
The Seventy Four and the takeover of America’s schools
“Our public education system is in crisis” warns the Seventy Four in its mission statement, echoing the refrain of billionaire school privatizers over the last decade plus. It’s evidence that Brown’s latest venture is dedicated to pushing what has become known as the “awfulizing narrative” that America’s schools are broken beyond repair; that teachers, unions and locally elected school boards are to blame; and that the only way to fix our education problem is by dumping one of America’s oldest democratic institutions—public schools—in favor of a market-driven system.
After Brown announced the Seventy Four was coming and the site’s backers were named, numerous education watchers wondered aloud whether an education news website underwritten by a collective that has poured billions into school privatization would even attempt to offer impartial journalism.
“It is always wise to know who is funding something,” John F. Jennings, founder of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, told theWashington Post. “If the ‘new reformers’ are funding [Brown’s] site, and there is no balance of funding from others, I believe the site will be suspect. Sorry, but as they used to say, ‘Money makes the world go ’round,’ and in this instance it may wobble in the direction that the new reformers like. I presume [the site has] integrity, but questions will always be asked about how the topics were picked [and] presented.”
In response to the buzz of questions about potential bias in the Seventy Four’s reporting, Brown posted an open letter of sorts to the site.
“I have learned that not every story has two sides,” the former reporter wrote. “[I]s The Seventy Four journalism or advocacy? For 74 million reasons, we are both.”
This vague admission that the Seventy Four would be taking a side came as no surprise to those who have watched Brown’s trajectory over recent years. And while it hews as close to transparency as can realistically be expected from Brown, it still remains a good distance from full disclosure.
The former anchor speaks openly and often in favor of charter schools. She once called herself a “soldier in Eva’s army,” a reference to Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools. (The chain has been criticized for putting so much pressure on children that they wet themselves during testing, and video recently surfaced of a teacher—whom Moskowitz has since defended—harshly berating a first-grader for a math mistake.) Last year, Brown loudly applauded UK Prime Minister David Cameron’scall “for an end to the country’s traditional public school system, endorsing instead a nationwide conversion to academies, which are essentially the British equivalent of charter schools.” The Seventy Four rarely covers charter missteps, but Brown dedicated an entire article to the demise of three New York City unionized charters, somehow surmising that the problem lies with teachers unions and not charters themselves.
“Ms. Brown [has] transformed into the most recognizable face of the combustible school-reform fight,” a New York Times article declared in 2012, back when Brown was still rising to become the full-throated public voice of education reform. Since then, she has become a key media operative in the billionaire-backed effort to push the idea of school privatization. In many ways, thanks to two decades in television and an image as a truth-seeking reporter, it’s a role she was made for.
The real cost to taxpayers, parents, students and traditional public schools
It is not incidental that those who fund Brown’s groups and projects are the same figures who’ve been instrumental in charterizing school districts across the country. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there are now 3 million children enrolled in charter schools across 42 states and the District of Columbia. Since 1992, by its own estimation, Brown backer the Walton Family Foundation has “supported a quarter of the 6,700 charter schools created in the United States.” A critical element of the charter campaign lies in convincing Americans that free-market “school choice” is the only route to good schools, and threading that narrative into the mainstream education conversation has helped contribute to the wildfire spread of charters in places like Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. But charter expansion has also had a downside for the school privatization movement, in the form of increased scrutiny on charter performance and delivery on promises made.
In study after study, researchers have determined that, on average, charters don’t outperform traditional public schools, and not infrequently fare worse. They accept public funds, but in many cases give day-to-day oversight to private, for-profit organizations. They’re exempt from many regulations that govern traditional public schools, which, depending on the state, can include “‘minimum standards’ covering such things as training and qualifications of personnel; public disclosure of instructional materials, equipment, and facilities; organization, administration, and supervision of schools; and ‘reporting requirements.’”
This ability to opt out of the very rules that make public education accessible to all helps further contribute to issues that already plague our schools, such as racial segregation and the achievement gap between white and minority students. A recent Mother Jones piece on the “no excuses” philosophy—the belief by some charter officials “that the smallest infraction…is to be met with an immediate consequence”—notes that punitive measures disproportionately target black children and students with disabilities. And perhaps unsurprisingly, widespread deregulation has led to charges of corruption at charter institutions around the country.
“[The] model requires firing all the teachers, no matter their performance, allowing them to reapply for a job, and replacing many of them with inexperienced [Teach For America] recruits,” Ravitch told In These Times, speaking to the charterization of New Orleans schools. “That model requires wiping out public schools and replacing them with privately managed schools that set their own standards for admission, discipline, expulsion, and are financially opaque. These heavy-handed tactics require a suspension of democracy that would not be tolerated in a white suburb, but can be done to powerless urban districts where the children are black and Hispanic.”
Despite the light now being cast on school privatization negatives, the Walton Family Foundation and other wealthy privatization advocates continue to promote and support charter schools instead of refocusing most of their giving on the nation’s perpetually underfunded public schools. It’s a strategy that has been questioned by numerous education experts.
“What returns have we all seen as a society?” asks Kim Anderson of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, speaking to theAssociated Press. “A billion dollars would provide a tremendous amount of services to a number of school districts around the country. Eyeglasses. Hearing exams. It is not as though we have things in the [traditional] public school systems that don’t need to be improved.”
In fact, school privatizers have relentlessly promoted the idea that putting more money into traditional public schools is actually a bad idea. Yet if you doubt that the education fight is fundamentally about money, consider that Walton recentlyheld a symposium to help hedge funders and other wealthy investors learn how best to get a crack at the $500 billion spent each year on K-12 public education. (Organizers expressly billed the event as a way for attendees to “[l]earn and understand the value of investing in charter schools and best practices for assessing their credit.”) The Nation quotes a presenter at the conference, hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, saying it’s “not rocket science” that we shouldn’t put any more money into our public schools. The article goes on to note that New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, echoed this idea when discussing school spending in his State of the Union address last January.
“Why do Cuomo and these hedge funders say money doesn’t matter?” Zakiyah Ansari, a parent who also works with the Alliance for Quality Education, asked the Nation. “I’m sure it matters in Scarsdale. I’m sure it matters where the Waltons send their kids. They don’t send their kids to schools with overcrowded classrooms, over-testing, no art, no music, no sports programs, etc. Does money only ‘not matter’ when it comes to black and brown kids?”
Instead of more money for schools, school privatizers argue, “school choice” is the solution to underperforming schools. Vouchers and charters, they suggest, are the kids’ best hope. Campbell Brown, who like so many in the top-down world of corporate education reform sends her own children to private school, suggests that choice for all is why she has enlisted in the school privatization battle.
“Because my kids go to private school, I need to be in the fight,” Brown said in an interview with local television station NY1 late last year. “Because I have a choice, I need to make sure everyone else gets a choice, too.”
But here’s the fallacy at the root of this argument: Many parents choose charters not because they want to, but because without fully funded, high-functioning local public schools, they feel they have to. If your community schools are riddled with problems, of course you’re likely to take a chance on a charter. But that’s a false choice. If we funded education the way we should, across the board, for every student, we wouldn’t need charters. It’s easier to talk about privatizing schools than it is to discuss poverty, racism and other socioeconomic factors that led to the problems in our most struggling schools. Problems which educators are somehow expected to overcome, often without basic provisions. (See:Detroit.)
Growing awareness of evidence showing charters are not the miraculous cure-alls they’ve long been touted as has contributed to a slow but growing—and meaningful—resistance to school privatization. Billionaire backers of charters are aware of this mounting pushback and are also increasingly aware that they need messengers to counter it. Brown is the media face of that effort, and her backers are putting money on her ability to use her media skills and credentials to give their cause mainstream validity. The Seventy Four, under the guise of delivering news, is among the most recent developments in that campaign.
The Seventy Four takeover of LA School Report
In February, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Seventy Four had taken over LA School Report, which is focused on news related to the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country behind New York City. The deal reportedly was a cash-free exchange, with Brown’s outlet absorbing the education site and its staffers. Defenders of traditional public education across the board were dismayed by the news, for multiple reasons.
There was, of course, the matter of editorial integrity. Brown’s track record, along with those of her funders, and the pro-charter tone of the Seventy Four thus far, suggested that LA School Report would likely turn into yet another tool of the charter industry. But it was impossible to ignore the timing of the acquisition, which made the whole deal seem suspect and even cynical.
In September 2015, the Los Angeles Times managed to get its hands on and make public a confidential 44-page document from the Broad Foundation outlining a plan to double the number of Los Angeles-based charter schools. A list of potential partners in funding the “Great Public Schools Now” initiative included, among many others, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the Walton family. With a proposed collective investment of half a billion dollars, the document makes the case (mostly by obfuscating results from existing charters so they outpace reality) for the privatization of one of the country’s largest school districts.
After the leak, and the groundswell of criticism it received, Broad backed off its plan, softening its target goals and shying away from hard and fast numbers. But stakeholders remain suspicious of the plan—now referred to popularly as the Broad-Walmart scheme—and for good reason. The United Teachers Los Angeles blog makes clear why educators and others shouldn’t let down their guard down:
Although the Broad-Walmart public message has changed, their goal to defund, deregulate, and dismantle public schools has not. You only have to look at the team they hired to lead the disingenuously named Great Public Schools Now. If they were truly backing off their plan to push a massive expansion of unregulated charter schools across LAUSD, would they have put investment banker Bill Siart in charge? Siart is a founder of ExEd, a company that specializes in (and profits from) supporting new charters. Would they have hired Myrna Castrejon, a former lobbyist for California Charter Schools Association, as executive director? And if this effort was not truly about breaking the union, would they have hired Mercury Public Affairs?
UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl sees in the Seventy Four’s takeover of LA School Report a clear parallel to the ongoing effort to take over L.A.’s public schools.
“Is there a connection between the Seventy Four’s takeover of LA School Report and the Broad-Walmart plan to privatize LAUSD schools? Of course there is,” Caputo-Pearl told the Los Angeles Times. “Campbell Brown is not about fair coverage. She is about ‘reform,’ which is often a code word for criticizing teachers and advocating that public schools get turned into charter corporations.”
Steve Zimmer, president of the LA Unified School Board, spoke with LA School Report last year about the Broad-Walmart plan, describing it as terribly flawed. (“To submit a business plan that focuses on market share,” Zimmer told the publication, “is tantamount to commodifying our children.”) Upon learning of the site’s absorption by the Seventy Four, in an email to its outgoing editor, he lamented what the deal would mean for coverage of the school district. “Truth itself, as it relates to public education in Los Angeles, will be filtered through an orthodox reform lens at every turn,” Zimmer wrote, according to the Times.
According to the California Charter Schools Association, the state already has “the most charter schools and charter school students in the country.” Charter school enrollment in California grew 7 percent during the 2015-2016 school year, an increase of 36,100 students. The Los Angeles area leads all others around the state for charter school expansion. If the free-market charter school advocates win the next round—and they are prepared to spend a lot of money to ensure they do—those numbers will likely grow exponentially in the coming years.
The potential for this increases as the charter contingent builds steam, picking up properties along the way, including local education news sites. “LA School Report has been a legitimate and credible news organization,” Randi Weingarten told the Los Angeles Times. “The 74 million is not.”
That’s sobering news for watchers of Los Angeles public schools, and schools nationwide, who know that a win for privatization is a loss for student, teachers, public schools and democracy.